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Socialist Party Congress report: Trade unions and workplaces
Preparing for the struggles ahead
At the Socialist Party's national congress on 10-12 March, the discussion on developments in the trade unions was introduced by Rob Williams. He proposed, and it was unanimously agreed, to send messages of support to the Remploy workers facing a battle to keep their factories open and to the MMP packaging workers in Bootle who are also fighting redundancies foisted on them by a vicious employer.
The conference erupted in cheers as delegates agreed to send congratulations to the construction workers who have defeated the big construction companies' attempts to slash their wages and working conditions.
Rob graphically set out what workers are facing in the age of austerity. In the public sector, especially in local government, the Con-Dems have been able to push through cuts, a pay freeze, redundancies and privatisation - impossible without the collusion of Labour councillors and often a defeatist role played by trade union bureaucrats.
But the anger and frustration about all these attacks has been concentrated on the pensions dispute. That battle, and the willingness to fight of public sector workers, has had an affect on the private sector by legitimising struggle again. There has been a rash of disputes, notably those reported on in the Socialist, such as Unilever, Wincanton and the Stagecoach bus drivers.
The correct tactics and strategy being adopted by the leadership of the civil service union PCS, which includes Socialist Party members, has been important. The Left Unity conference on 7 January played a vital role in keeping united national action on the agenda.
The pensions struggle is continuing, with the planned strike on 28 March - and it could reignite. But whatever happens it has helped to reinvigorate the fighting spirit within the trade unions and it has paved the way for the battles to come, including over the NHS.
The construction workers' battle showed the complexities within the trade union movement - the need to go through the official union bodies as well as organising rank and file action. The trade union officials involved were largely weighed down by past setbacks and the bold and imaginative methods used by the rank and file were essential in igniting and spreading the dispute. But the employers only backed down after there was an official strike ballot.
Through all of these disputes the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) has played an increasingly important role and the conference on 9 June should further develop its significance as a fighting organisation for active trade unionists.
The discussion ranged across many unions and workplaces, delegates explaining how future battles will emerge. In education for example, school teachers are taking action against privatisation and cuts, as well as pensions, the action taken by the NUT having an influence on the other teaching unions.
Affiliation to the Labour Party was another theme, with a member of Unison pointing out how the confidence in Labour has been severely dented after all the cuts being implemented by Labour councils. Only one third of Unison members were paying into the affiliated political fund anyway.
The long-running witch-hunt against Socialist Party members in Unison is an indication of the fear the union leadership has of the arguments for a fighting democratic union. And the repeated failure of the witch-hunters to win the arguments at employment tribunals is an indication of their political weakness.
Several delegates mentioned the importance of selling the Socialist in workplaces. Many workers will take out subscriptions to the paper, especially if the content is used to develop workplace discussion groups and some will be convinced to join the Socialist Party by what they read.
The lively and interesting discussion and the summing up by Jane James, from the executive committee, really underlined the important positions many Socialist Party members have in the trade unions and the necessity of continuing the preparation for the forthcoming battles.
In The Socialist 15 March 2012:
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